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Internships versus Volunteering Abroad

Similarities, Differences and Options for International Service and Learning

Volunteer in Asia with Worldteach.
Volunteers teaching children in Thailand. All volunteers in Thailand are eligible for the WorldTeach TEFL Certification Program which can serve them beyond the project for work as an English teacher abroad. Photo courtesy of Worldteach.

TA: In a nutshell, what is the difference between international volunteering and internships?

ZH: Volunteering tends to focus on service — usually either helping a nonprofit organization or providing direct service to individuals overseas.

Internships focus on learning — interns expect to learn skills that will further their academic or career goals.

Internships differ from most volunteer service in other ways:

  1. Interns are more likely to work in office jobs; volunteers are more likely to work in a classroom, clinic, or field.
  2. Interns often work for profit businesses or large, established nonprofit organization; volunteers often work for more grassroots organizations.
  3. Internships are usually full-time work for a specific amount of time — usually an academic semester of 3-4 months; international volunteer programs range from one week to three years.
  4. Internships often have a formal study component; volunteer programs usually do not include academic study or credit.
  5. Internships are similar to apprenticeships — an extension of a course of study that will help the participant be ready to enter the field as a skilled professional.
Internship in France with ELI
Internship in France. Photo courtesy of ELI Abroad.

TA: What is a typical internship experience like, compared to a typical volunteer experience?

ZH: Internships tend to be for college students or recent grads in their 20s who have 3-6 months to work overseas and do not yet have much professional experience.

Volunteer experiences are more variable in terms of age, length of service, and type of placement.

Here are some hypothetical examples that can illustrate the difference.

Intern: Sandra, 22, graduated from the University of Maryland. She landed a 3-month summer internship with an international environmental nonprofit organization in Quito through Experiential Learning Ecuadorian Programs (ELEP). She’s fluent in Spanish and is assisting the Director of Development apply for grants from foundations in the US. ELEP arranged for her placement and a home stay.

Volunteer: Samuel volunteered for two weeks at a school for kids with disabilities with Cross Cultural Solutions in India. He’s 50 years old, a successful businessman, and wanted to spend his vacation time doing something meaningful. His volunteer job is to read to and play with the children. Cross Cultural Solutions provided an orientation, training, room and board.

TA: Is there overlap between interning and volunteering?

ZH: Yes, absolutely. As you can see in the examples above, both interns and volunteers can expect to learn as well as contribute. The difference is in intension and focus.

Unpaid internships could be considered volunteering. Some volunteer programs tend to place volunteers in what they call internship assignments.

So the distinction can be a bit fuzzy and it is important to check the details of any international experience you are considering.

TA: Are international internships paid?

ZH: The majority of internships are either unpaid, or pay a very small stipend that barely covers living expenses.

A few internship programs pay more. These tend to be formal internships for business and engineering students who work for large multinational corporations; IAESTE and AIESEC provide such opportunities in many countries. You may still have to provide your own airfare.

Most internship placement programs charge a fee. Programs that provide academic credit (study abroad internships) can be as expensive as a regular semester of college, but in some cases you can apply financial aid. Internship programs that provide a simple matching service may have fees as low as $100.

Make sure you find out what the fees cover, so you can compare fees in a meaningful way. Does the fee include airfare, room and board, travel and health insurance, training, study, language program study, and academic credit? Are you on your own if something goes wrong?

TA: Are unpaid internships (or internship programs that charge fees) exploitative?

ZH: Absolutely not — as long as the intern gets vital opportunities to learn. My first internship at the Washington Office on Africa was unpaid. The staff trained me on all aspects of working in a professional office — from how to answer phones to how to organize events. I learned how the U.S. Congress works. I met people who are still my mentors (25 years later!). And my internship eventually transformed into a paid job, and helped me obtain work at other organizations later in my career.

Having said that, prospective interns need to do due diligence to make sure that they are not being charged excessive fees for subpar services, or working for an organization that will have them only making photocopies and not getting the opportunity to learn.

TA: How do you do due diligence?

ZH: First of all, you must do more than web research. You absolutely must speak to former interns (or volunteers) who have recently completed the program you are considering in the country you plan to visit. Ask hard questions — not only what they liked about the program but also what the challenges were and how the finances worked out — was the service provided worth the fee if any? Was the stipend enough to live on?

Any organization that will not connect you with a current or former intern is suspect! I would urge you not to sign up without talking with a couple of current or former participants, unless you have a friend, professor, or career counselor who can vouch for the organization.

TA: Is it possible to find an internship without a placement organization?

ZH: Yes, but I usually recommend using an internship placement program. Programs are usually better for the intern because they pre-screen the organizations where you will work. They provide logistical support and give you a place to turn to if you have problems.

In addition, formal programs benefit the host organization. I found as a supervisor that interns in placement programs were much more reliable than the independent interns. The program interns had been screened and had made a commitment, including a financial commitment, to the internship. They had some orientation so they were easier to train.

On the other hand, if you have a good network and are a very reliable person, you should be able to find an organization overseas that can host you without an intermediary program. Idealist and other sites list opportunities open to independent interns. You’ll still need to do your due diligence.

TA: Can someone who has already graduated college do an internship?

ZH: Most internship programs are designed for undergraduates, graduate students, or recent grads. However, some accept people of all ages. And you can arrange an independent internship no matter what your age.

TA: What if you end up in an internship where you are just making photocopies and feel underutilized — or even exploited?

ZH: Unfortunately, many internships have a high degree of administrative work, which is often called “paying your dues.” Learn as much as you can in the situation. When in graduate school, I interned on Capitol Hill where I was only expected to sort the mail. So I did my own analysis of incoming mail and learned volumes about how lobbying organizations effectively influence legislation. Then I managed my boss; I convinced my supervisor to let me write a report on debt cancellation for the Congresswoman.

If you’re just twiddling your thumbs, make your own personal development plan — use the time to improve your language skills, or offer to make a new brochure or update the website if you have the skills.

If you believe you are being exploited, talk to your boss and see if change is possible. If you are with a university or a placement program, you should be able to get support — or help finding another placement.

TA: Thank you, Zahara

ZH: It’s always a pleasure to talk with you, Greg.

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